WASHINGTON, D.C. — With no farm bill, no budget and no immigration bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joked that he didn’t know why he was speaking to the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference.
By the end of his Oct. 1 speech, however, Vilsack’s address had assumed the vigor a campaign speech, urging attendees to push Congress for results on the farm bill and comprehensive immigration reform.
“Folks, have you had enough of this?” Vilsack asked. “If you have — and you should have enough a long time ago — there should be an understanding that as patriots you have a responsibility to your country to knock some sense into some folks up there and to get them to act."
Vilsack said agriculture workforce issues should require Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He said 1.1 million people are needed to harvest and pack and process food. Of that number, 700,000 are not U.S. citizens and are not authorized to work here.
The question of what to do about the agriculture workforce, along with the estimated 12 million people who are in the country without authorization, remains unanswered, he said.
Vilsack said proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation includes provisions to allow those workers to pay back taxes, acknowledge wrongdoing.
“It is earned citizenship, not amnesty,” he said.
Comprehensive immigration reform language also includes provisions for a guest workforce program that would help agriculture meet labor demands.
Vilsack said immigration reform could help reduce the budget deficit by $850 billion over 20 years, according to government analysts.
Vilsack also stressed the need for Congress to finish work on the farm bill.
All the farm bill programs that were extended last year have expired, he said, giving growers a lack of confidence in government.
In a question-and-answer session, Vilsack said splitting nutrition (food stamp) provisions from farm programs in the bill is bad policy. With 33,000 growers producing close to 50% of the food supply, Vilsack said rural America needs the support of lawmakers from urban districts, and the nutrition title helps secure that support, he said. Growers represent far less than 1% of the total population.
“Decoupling (food stamps from the farm bill) essentially says to farmers that you are on your own.” He said.